Herodotus and Marmite

Jacques-Louis_David_004

The Greek historian Herodotus is very similar to the British condiment Marmite. You either love him or you hate him. As part of the former group, I believe that at least some of the animosity toward Herodotus comes from several misunderstandings about his history.

Herodotus is the anti-Wikipedia historian. He does not give us a collection of facts as much as series of stories. History for Herodotus can be found in what people say about themselves, others, and what we can deduce by comparing the stories, tales, legends, and reports from people around the Western world.

Perhaps more importantly, there is oftentimes a general misunderstanding of what he is trying to do in The Histories.

Among Herodotus’s earliest detractors, the 1st century BC Greco-Roman writer Plutarch rebuked him, saying:

The style … of Herodotus, as being simple, free, and easily suiting itself to its subject, has deceived many; but more, a persuasion of his dispositions being equally sincere. For it is not only (as Plato says) an extreme injustice to make a show of being just when one is not so; but it is also the highest malignity to pretend  to simplicity and mildness and be in the mean time really most malicious.

Continue reading